SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) - Twice a day, Amtrak's Southwest Chief pulls into the sleepy railroad depot in Lamy, N.M. The rest of the day, the station, part of the transportation network that links Northern New Mexico to the rest of the country, is deserted.
Train advocate Ford Robbins has been following the saga of the Southwest Chief for years.
He's the kind of guy who gets Trains magazine delivered to his house. He rides trains wherever he travels, if at all possible, often renting a car at the other end for the final leg of his journey. His daughter and two of his grandchildren visited last week from Illinois, and, of course, rode Amtrak both ways.
Now insiders are suggesting passengers like Robbins and his family might eventually have to use other transportation. Some fear rail service on the Southwest Chief is in jeopardy, all the way from Raton to Albuquerque, partly because of questions about whether the state government can get out of an agreement to buy 200 miles of the railroad line.
Robbins hangs out with guys who calculate the miles per gallon per passenger when they ride a long-distance train. They all believe public transit is paramount in our society. And they are worried that government doesn't see the value of trains now or for the future.
Robbins is so worried that he's forming a Santa Fe group to be part of the Southwest Chief Coalition, an organization already under way in Colorado and Kansas.
"For us in the coalition, the problem is also, how do we get the local officials to see that there is a problem and to get them interested enough to pay attention and try to resolve it?" he said. "This really is a crisis brewing."
Last year, the Colorado Rail Passenger Association issued a news release making dire predictions about the survival of the route. Jim Souby, association president, said local governments in the other two states have now pulled together $100,000 for lobbying and advocacy. Now he's hoping that more New Mexico communities will get on board.
Getting the federal government to sufficiently fund Amtrak — the business it established in 1971 — still appears to be an uphill battle, he said.
"The risk has not changed. Amtrak is still struggling to get enough resources from Congress to continue to run these trains across the country. ... It's crucial to us just for transportation needs, particularly as gasoline prices increase and as people get older.
"Second, this line is key to our economic future, and that includes tourism and any future freight that might develop," Souby said. "So, we need to get this line preserved and protected."
The future of the Southwest Chief is directly tied to events in New Mexico's not-so-distant past.
When Gov. Bill Richardson was in his first term, he made a deal some believe would have averted the danger of losing national passenger rail service here.
Richardson needed affordable access to a major rail corridor owned by BNSF Railway Co. (formerly known as Burlington Northern Santa Fe) in metropolitan Albuquerque for a state-run commuter rail service, which he saw as his legacy.
So in 2005, the state agreed to purchase nearly 300 miles of train tracks and their rights of way stretching from the Colorado border near Trinidad to Belen, south of Albuquerque. The first two phases of track cost $70 million and were purchased in time for the opening of the Rail Runner Express commuter service, which began shuttling passengers from Belen to Santa Fe at the end of 2008.
The third phase, from Lamy north to the Colorado border, however, was never intended for immediate use by the regional train service. Although it was the largest section of track, 200 miles, the purchase price was less than $5 million, and the deal was set to be executed in 2008, three years down the road.
Years later, however, at the direction of Gov. Susana Martinez, the state Transportation Department secretary told BNSF that the state wanted out of the deal. But another year has passed, and there's still no resolution on that point.
A bigger piece of the puzzle, however, is in the hands of the U.S. Congress.
Amtrak depends on an annual congressional appropriation to operate its trains on 21,100 route miles across the nation.
Some members of New Mexico's congressional delegation are advocating for increased Amtrak funding. Democratic Sen. Tom Udall is among dozens of federal lawmakers who sent a letter last week to congressional leaders calling for greater support of Amtrak investments, not just for operations but for capital expenditures required for the current route of the Chief.
Democratic Rep. Ben Ray Luján has also voted against efforts in the past to cut funding for Amtrak and supports putting enough money into the program to provide vital service to New Mexico, his spokesman said.
Currently, federal spending on trains is dwarfed by what the government spends on other modes of transportation. In the last federal fiscal year, about $43 billion went to highways and $16 billion went to airports, compared to $4.3 billion
allocated for railroads ($1.6 billion of which went to Amtrak).
Since a major transportation bill expired in 2008, Congress has been passing extensions rather than establishing new policies. In March, the U.S. Senate approved a new transportation bill that includes some provisions to keep railroad funding in place. Consideration of the plan by the House hasn't moved very far, and on Thursday, officials agreed to another 90-day extension of the old funding plan.
Author Duane Roller waited on the platform for the westbound train in February. He and his wife, Letty, relocated to Eldorado because of its proximity to the Lamy train station.
"There's all the money you need for highways and airlines, but Amtrak is nickel-and-dimed to death," he said. "There is this crazy idea that it should make a profit, which is a thinly disguised way of killing it. Congress now is saying that people shouldn't have a choice."
As the train arrived, Roller raised his hand to shield his eyes from the sun. It was 2:27 p.m., just three minutes behind schedule.
"They have three engines today," he observed, walking across the sagging brick sidewalk to retrieve his small, black bag as the sleeper car and dining car slid into the station. He would arrive in Los Angeles in time for a morning meeting.
A piercing warning scream came from the yellow cart shuttling packages to the train. Roller disappeared into one of the open doors with a dozen other passengers.
A conductor scooped up a four-legged stool that would serve as the first or last step for riders. He waved to another worker at the train's opposite end. The engineer gave two short toots on the horn, then a metallic tone sounded as the brakes released and the train slowly began to roll west.
At least for this day, the train was something passengers could depend on.
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